One woman's search for her stolen identity

My identity was stolen in less than 30 minutes sometime in the summer of 1998. I'm still trying to clear my credit. Despite all the concern about Internet security, this wasn't a high-tech crime. A simple, but illegal, paper credit report gave a ring of thieves all it needed to begin impersonating me.

It started in July when two store credit cards I hadn't applied for arrived. I mentioned it to my husband and then destroyed them. The next day brought a letter from a large home-furnishings store asking me to confirm a credit-card application. That's when the alarms started to go off.

My investigation started with a call to the home-furnishings store and ended 180 phone hours and 580 miles later. The imposter took my information from an illegally run credit report, went to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV), and secured a State of Ohio Identification Card. She applied for the ID using a fraudulent birth certificate and Social Security card. The new ID established her identity and invalidated mine. I was now an 18-year-old woman with a penchant for cellphones, jewelry, and loans. Soon she took out a post-office box in my name. She even had a college identification card. She knew everything.

The scheme started small. But before long, the other me had opened a checking account, secured a $5,000 loan, and taken out a life-insurance policy.

When I called the three major credit bureaus to find out what inquiries had been made into my credit in the past month, all gave me a list (over the phone) of any credit inquiries made. Nine inquiries showed up.

I called the fraud departments at each of these institutions and discovered that on all occasions, credit had been applied for and received. I cancelled every account I found - 15 in all - and filed police reports for each. The BMV reestablished me in its database and gave me a form to inform the police, should they stop me, that I was a victim of identity theft. According to the FBI and Secret Service agents I spoke to, in 60 percent of identity-theft cases the victim is arrested for crimes committed by the imposter.

From July to August 1998, I kept copious daily notes: who I talked to at what company or agency, time, date, details of the conversation. This information was very useful when I explained my case to the prosecutor's office and as I attempted to re-create my excellent credit. Because I teach at a college and was on my summer break, I was fortunate to have the time to contact all the different companies, offices, and agencies to file reports and travel to and from a variety of police departments. But for someone who works a 40-hour week, the nightmare of this process would require a leave of absence.

The next December, six people were arrested for the theft of my identity and those of three others. The leader of the ring and the deputy registrar of the local BMV were convicted. The person who ran the credit report cooperated with authorities and is serving time in a work camp.

The person who took my identity is free, and I'm uncertain if my identity is secure. The FBI and Secret Service estimate that, in a large percentage of all identity-fraud cases, personal information is sold. I could face the same situation again. Even though there's an alert on my credit report not to grant instant credit for the next seven years, additional credit cards and accounts in my name may already have been established. I could still be accused of false crimes. Medical care could be extended to a fraudulent party. My Social Security benefits easily could be accessed by someone posing as me.

Victims of identity theft don't get much direction, assistance, or compassion. Although it's called the "crime of the next century," it's one police departments don't understand, don't consider a serious offense, and don't have the manpower to address. There's no restitution or victim assistance.

When filing my 10 police reports, I was repeatedly asked what I lost or what was stolen. Nothing.

Don't let the agencies or other well-meaning organizations kid you - you can shred, have an unlisted number, and keep all your receipts, but if someone wants your information, they can get it.

*Amy Jo Sutterluety is professor of sports medicine at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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